City of Columbia passes mask mandate for elementary and middle schools, state leaders could challenge order


COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — One of South Carolina’s largest city will require masks in elementary and middle schools within city limits.

Mayor Steven Benjamin said he proposed the emergency ordinance after seeing COVID-19 cases sharply increase due to the spread of the Delta variant. He said he’s also worried after hearing COVID-19 related and respiratory illnesses are up among children at local hospitals.

Mayor Benjamin said, “This ordinance is carefully crafted and focused like a laser beam protecting those who can’t be vaccinated.”

The Columbia City Council called an emergency meeting Thursday to vote on the ordinance. Members voted 5-1 to approve the Mayor’s order. It requires masks in elementary and middle schools within city limits. Day cares are included as well. Officials said this will impact about 43 schools.

Benjamin said their goal is to protect children who cannot get vaccinated yet. The FDA has granted emergency use authorization of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for anyone over the age of 12.

A budget proviso approved by state lawmakers essentially banned districts from implementing their own mask mandates and using state funds to enforce them this school year. If they do not follow this, they could lose state funding.

Mayor Benjamin said this emergency ordinance does not violate the budget proviso.

According to officials, city fire marshals will enforce the mask mandate, not the schools. School administrators could be fined up to $100 if the ordinance is violated.

Benjamin said, “Sending children into an environment where we know the likelihood of them potentially contracting COVID-19 because of the lack of protocols or laws trying to stop us from protecting them is foolish, cold hearted, and unnecessary.”

The councilman who voted against the ordinance said the city should focus it’s efforts on getting vaccination rates up and not on implementing mask mandates in schools. Daniel Rickenman said, “There’s nothing that prevents you from wearing a mask or making that decision for your family or children. There is a letter of the law out there that says we can’t do this.”

Mayor Benjamin responded during Thursday’s meeting and said the ordinance does not violate the budget proviso.

A spokesperson for Governor Henry McMaster said, “This is another attempt to force children to wear masks in schools without a bit of consideration for a parent’s right to make that decision. State law prohibits mask mandates in public schools, and the city’s ordinance would require teachers and administrators to violate state law.”

Governor Henry McMaster was in the Upstate Thursday and hinted at a possible legal challenge to the order but said that would be up to state Attorney General.

A spokesperson for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said Thursday in a statement, “We’re doing research and analysis of it (the order) and expect to announce something late next week.”

The order will last up to 61 days Benjamin said.

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